Keys To Encouraging A Diversity Of Birds In The Garden

The superb fairy-wrens are delightful to watch as they play and bathe in the shallow waterbath near our front door. Each morning they make their way from the paddocks beyond, through the lantana weeds and the honeysuckle twines, onto the branches of the weeping rose behind my kitchen window. Here they spend some time catching a few insects for their late morning snack before hopping under the murraya, geraniums and  four-o'clocks all the way to the front.  They absolutely love diving in and out of the bath, like kids at a swimming pool.  If I stand still by door and talk to them softly, they come out of hiding and say hello.  They are a joy to behold, a gift of nature and I feel so grateful for their visit.  The wrens often play in the thickly foliaged centre of the camelia bushes and at certain times of the year they roost in the sheltering folds of the heavily branched double-may bushes.  But if I prune these plants, I am sure to lose the wrens and it is months before they return. The birds are smaller in size than some moths and extremely vulnerable to attack from the other birds, almost all of whom are larger.  

How can we create a safe-haven for birds like fairy-wrens and thornbills and still make friends with aggressive birds like crows, currawongs, butcherbirds and noisy-miners? I've found that the key lies in managing their feeding and breeding areas.  

Provide a safe corridor for the smaller birds:
Most gardens (like mine) have some trees, some wide open shrubs and some annuals.  While these are beautiful and easy to maintain, they do not provide the smaller birds with adequate protection.   Wrens , thornbills and finches like plants with very dense foliage so they can squeeze their way into the tiny gaps towards the centre of the shrub making it impossible for the noisy-miners and butcherbirds to follow them. Some of the plants that wrens like most are lantana and Indian hawthorn. They also like foraging in densely planted herb gardens. Providing a waterbath in the shelter of the overhanging branches of these plants, gives the birds a safer area to frequent.

Noisy miners are nectar eating birds and love grevilleas, which being open shrubs are perfectly designed for these birds to hop about the flowers and hang off the end of the tips of the branches for their drink. These plants are too open, wide, and their branches being strong enough to support the weight of the bigger birds, do not provide the barrier needed by the smaller birds. The noisy miners and butcherbirds are also fairly light and small in size themselves so they can sit on the stems of most long-stemmed annuals and plants with long flowering seasons and so chase the smaller birds out of the patch.  

Richard Hastings found in his research that corridors of bipinnate acacias (like green wattles and sunshine wattles) were suitable for thornbills and passerines (National Parks Journal, Feb-Mar 2006). The wrens in our yard, I noticed, would stop visiting if I pruned the weeping roses. They needed a safe corridor of thorny plants through which they could travel to the water bath. Pruning any of the plants that provided them with a safe refuge would increase their vulnerability by exposing them to danger. 

Sadly in some parts of the world, including here in Australia, lantana grows wildly and chokes the paddocks. The tragedy is that the lantana plant growing in the wild, even in the harsh drought conditions, provides the smaller birds with some of the best protection there is. Alternative shrubs that can grow freely in the bush need to be urgently found and planted in gardens, and along highways as well to build reasonable corridors for the more vulnerable species.  Some researchers recommend that at least 15 percent of the understory should consist of low stemmed, thick foliage plants with short-flowering seasons.

Interestingly, when doing my research for this article I also discovered that wrens and sparrows are pretty aggressive birds themselves and often break into heated territorial squabbles with each other.  One writer mentioned that no small bird was safe within an acre of a house wren's bird-house!  The little darlings can be quite ferocious in protecting their territories.

Separate their feeding areas:

There are at least two sets of birds to be managed here.  

If one is designing a garden from scratch, it would be easier to plant the nectar bearing small trees and shrubs in the corner farthest from the thorny and dense shrubbery and herb patches suitable for the smaller species.  This would provide a safe zone for the fairy wrens, thornbills and finches, while keeping the noisy-miners occupied in another part of the garden.  The butcherbirds too would not be able to penetrate their way through the thorns giving the little creatures a hideout of their own.  If placed near the wall and eaves of the house or near window sills, the long sweeping branches of these shrubs would also provide cover for the nests and fledglings of the smaller birds.  The big birds tend to occupy the taller trees and having them away from the house and dense shrubs keeps them out of the way.

The second set of birds to be managed are the large birds like the crows and currawongs.  They will eat anything and everything in sight, given half a chance.  One has to keep guard while the other birds are feeding and discourage the crows from coming forward.  Crows are very attentive and can be quite shy.  One can usually just shoo them off and give them scraps in a different area of the yard after the other have eaten and left.  Currawongs too are shy birds and can be managed.

Talk to the birds and tell them what you want them to do: 

Yes, you read that right.  Once you have a relationship with the birds, they think of you as a friend and a senior member of their extended family.  Birds of all kinds, we've found, are always keen to talk and negotiate. Some take a little more encouragement and time than others. But eventually, they do listen.  

I am not much of a gardener and I have made very few changes to the garden that came with the house.  When I stuck some plants into the ground, hoping they would grow, it was with little knowledge of the variety of birds around our yard and the impact of the plants on their lifestyles.   We had already made many friends from the more aggressive species before we noticed any wrens or even knew that as a species they were in trouble.  And interestingly, it was the wrens who made the first move and came and talked to us.  

When we see the miners chasing the wrens, we tell them not to. They want to please us, so they listen.  Same with the crows and currawongs. We tell them that we want them to wait until after the magpies, butcherbirds and noisy-miners have eaten and left.  They listen and patiently wait their turn.  They will even wait for the rosellas and crested pigeons to finish their feed when we tell them to.  But one has to supervise.  Even with our favourites, if they are being naughty and chasing other birds away - we tell them to bring those birds and to let them eat first.  Of course they protest, plead, beg and try to make us change our minds. And sometimes its hard to be firm with them, because they are so cute and can find so many ways of endearing themselves. But if we persist, they listen and change their behaviour. 

Stay in a learning mode:

As we learn more about the ways and needs of the different species in our backyard and develop our ability to communicate with them, we have found that the birds too begin to open their hearts and respond to us and each other in a more co-operative and friendly way. Learning to relate to each other in a loving way and growing together, is I believe the most essential key in this new stage of the development of life on our precious planet.

Gitie House

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